COVID-19 causing long delays for guide dogs, charity says

A Manotick-based charity says COVID-19 has hampered its ability to match blind Canadians with guide dogs, leading to months of delays for people who desperately need those animals.  

Manotick organization says blind clients waiting months to get their service animals

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, a charity based in the south Ottawa community of Manotick, says its clients have been waiting months for service animals as COVID-19 has made it difficult to do their normal work. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced people inside their homes in mid-March, the loss of freedom was felt particularly hard by blind and partly blind Canadians waiting for guide dogs.

"[Clients have] been waiting quite a while," said Steven Doucette, who works with Manotick-based charity Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind.

The charity, located in Ottawa's rural south end, has seen its ability to match people with guide dogs severely impaired by the pandemic.

"Some [people have been waiting] for months, some maybe up to a year to get their guide dog, which gives them back their freedom and independence," Doucette told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning last week.

Donations dried up

Typically, people who are partly blind would visit Ottawa for 18 days of intensive training alongside their new pooch. The charity's training centre provides space for clients to bond with the support animal, ask questions or receive pointers.

We were in dire straits for awhile.- Steven Doucette

But Doucette said Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind shut down in March after being declared a non-essential business. 

Donations all but dried up, he said, although the charity still had hundreds of dogs in need of care. 

"We were in dire straits for a while. Looking after these dogs, [it's] difficult to cut expenses. We have the overhead [expenses] of a residential training centre that's going to sit empty," he said.  "For a while, we were stagnant."

Months later, the charity is still only matching people with dogs at half the rate it used to.

New reality not ideal

Due to COVID-19, only one client can attend the training centre at a time, down from as many as eight people pre-pandemic, Doucette said. 

Instructors are travelling into people's communities to work with them, before bringing the dog back to Manotick in the evening — which is not ideal, Doucette said.

Normally, clients would be paired with their dog on their second day at the centre and then start living together 24/7. 

Doucette said being properly trained to work with a guide dog takes time, but is critical to get right.

"You're basically giving them a four-legged creature and saying, 'Here, this is your guide dog and trust it with your life,'" he said. 

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